See What Happened Was...
fun stories from history
China during the 1500’s. Not something Europeans knew much about. Europe during the 1500’s. Not something China knew much about.
Or did they?
Trade between these parts of the world was in full swing by as early as the time of Roman Emperor Augustus (BC 27- AD 14) via the Silk Road (remember that from 6th grade Social Studies?). Those Roman folks were crazy for silk, spices, and all the other unique (to them) goods that China provided. The Chinese folks in turn really wanted European silver. Many more things were traded among merchants along this route however—intangible things like art, religion, technology, language, and architecture.
Unfortunately this swell back and forth didn't last forever. With the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the overland trade route was abandoned and contact between these two parts of the world significantly decreased.
Europeans didn’t stop wanting all the sweet Chinese goods though, so they began trying to establish other ways to get to China. This led to the age of great sea exploration, including Columbus’ journey to the Americas. Less famous however is the man who succeeded in sailing to China.
In 1513, Portuguese sailor Jorge Alvares was the first European to reach China during this Age of Discovery. He landed on an island near the city of Guangzhou on the coast of southern China. The Portuguese then began to look for a place to establish their trade.
Initially the Chinese were not exactly pleased with the presence of these Europeans. At first they only allowed them to dock their ships in the harbor but soon they began to tolerate them more and more. In 1552 the Portuguese were given permission to built storage sheds onshore and gradually received permission to take more and more ownership of an area today known as Macao. This became the first place Europeans established a permanent port in the Far West. They were allowed their own governing body (supervised by the Chinese) and paid rent to the Chinese government.
China was content enough with the setup and with the Portuguese, so they did not allow any other European power the privilege of an onshore settlement. This meant that major shipping powers like England and the Netherlands had to rent properties in Macao from the Portuguese.
As such, everything was going pretty well there for the Portuguese. There were livin’ it up as Europe's main entryway into China and East Asia as a whole. That is, until China made them only trade locally. And things got worse when Britain launched an attack against China.
China was trying to stop Britain from trading so much opium to its citizens. Britain was like, “Mmmmm but how else are we supposed to get rich off of you?” And so began the Opium Wars. At the end of it all in 1860, Britain came away with control of the territory of Hong Kong and access for themselves and the rest of the world to a bunch of other ports along the Chinese coast. And so Macao was no longer the primary European trading hub that it once was.
But the Portuguese continued to hang on to their little piece of China. They got some income by legalizing gambling and soon became quite the hot spot for that. The Portuguese continued to hang around in their little piece of China for so long that eventually the Chinese government agreed to let them become an official Portuguese colony in 1887.
Throughout the rest of the century, both World Wars, and the Cold War, Macao just kinda hung out. They went through various forms of agreements with China, sometimes totally independent, sometimes owned by China yet still under Portuguese administration. Finally in 1999, Macao was officially handed over to the People’s Republic of China.
Macao today is technically an autonomous territory within China. Which means it’s part of China…but not. It has its own government, currency, and education system. But it is protected by China’s military. Somewhat confusing. Either way, the Portuguese are out of the picture. Unless they want a good place to gamble—Macao still has that in spades (Oh-Hoo! Get it? Spades? Like cards n stuff?).